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Visual Arts   Literature   Music   Dance   Theatre  Film & New Media

 

How to be a Landed Immigrant

 

Magda Zalan

 

This title may remind you of Londoner George Mikes’ international bestseller HOW TO BE AN ALIEN. And this is not accidental. The author was born in Hungary, as I was, and as an adult had to learn to live in another country, as I did. He ran away to escape the perils of Nazionalsozialismus, while I did so to avoid being harrassed by the building of socialism. The similarities end  at this point, but precisely because of our differences, I accepted the invitation to put on paper my own “adventures in the trade”. Mikes (pron: Me-cash) had some good friends in England who helped him to enter England as an alien, which he was considered (and he considered himself) for the rest of his life, even with a British passport and several best seller books to his name. While I had only two Torontonians’ names in my little telephone directory when I entered Canada as a landed immigrant but enjoyed from the first day almost all the rights of a Canadian citizen.

 

I arrived to Canada in October of 1975. with a Nansen Pass (unofficial name for the travel document the Italian authorities issued me after I requested and obtained in Italy political asylum, which turned me from Hungarian citizen into a stateless refugee). I presented myself at Toronto airport’s Immigration Officer with a three-year old son, a few dollars and without two requirements I had never heard of, let alone was requested to possess: “marketable skills” and “Canadian experience”.

 

Passing that Cerberus of  Immigration, in the lobby awaited us one of my two “contacts”, a man who took upon himself to assist us in our first days in Toronto. I recognized him by the cardboard in his hand with my name on. We had never met before, we knew little bits about each other through a common friend in Paris. I knew that he had spent some years in the Hungarian Gulag for “industrial sabotage” and in Toronto was the publisher of the Jewish weekly Menora. His name was George – György or Gyuri – Egri. He knew that I had been a broadcaster in Hungary, and that I was not Jewish. In a letter from Rome, I asked him to reserve for us a hotel room. And it was he who first asked me the question what I later heard from almost everybody. “What marketable skills do you have?” Seeing my confused look, he explained the meaning of the expression, after which  I dutifully began to list my past endeavors.

 

Rapsody Cover I had a BA from the University of Budapest, which entitled me to teach English language and literature, I said, but immediately confessed that not having taught for a single day in Hungary I obviously would not dare to try myself out in any Canadian school. Then proudly and confidently continued with what I believed my remarkable experiences in the work field, namely nine years of broadcasting at Magyar Radio, in Budapest, and after that, almost 10 years in Rome of translating Hungarian literary works into Italian, later writing my own radio and TV plays and feature stories for various Italian cultural magazines. “None of them in great demand in an English-French bilingual country”, Egri remarked. I immediately disliked him. He than added that, instead of dealing with what work to find, I should immediately stop wasting money on a hotel. “You better find a bachelor first”, he said, “I can help.” At that point my disliking turned into outright hatred. I did not come to Canada to find a husband to be maintained by.

 

 I wanted to snarl at him, but he was already on the phone, giving me my first Canadian-English lesson: bachelor was the name of the furnished one-room apartment (not flat which it would be called in England). He found us one in no time through an Italian printer friend of his. Another one of his amazingly extended circle of acquaintances, a restaurant owner in Toronto’s little Budapest on Bloor Street, who didn’t know whether I was a chartered accountant or a prospective cleaning lady, offered us 50% discount on a daily lunch until I would have a job. Two days later Egri sent me to a Polish born man, director of an advertising agency. After a ten-minute chat with the man, I left his Yonge-Street-corner-of-Saint-Claire shop with my first job: I was going to cut “tear sheets” (another new word for newspaper clipping) from the various ethnic (and another again) publications in town, put them in an envelope and mail them to a certain government office which placed those ads as a way of helping the existence of the foreign language weeklies. My monthly salary was some 500-plus dollars. I was shocked: it was less than what Video, the RAI-TVs monthly review paid me for a 10-page interview, which covered the rent of my apartment. However, at the first month’s end of tear sheet mailing, I realized that what I considered my meager salary covered not only the monthly rent of our bachelor but our food, my son’s daycare and my metro transportation. In fact, in four months I did what I never did in Rome: I saved 1000 dollars. It was enough for two months’ deposit on and the first month’s rent of a junior two-bedroom (new expression. this too) apartment on Walmer Road, with a fabulous view to Toronto’s lakeside skyscrapers. Needless to say: again with the help of Mr. Guardian Angel, as I used to call Gyuri Egri for the rest of our Toronto stay.

 

Before moving in the Walmer Road building at the beginning of 1976, he took us to a Hungarian owned store of new and used furniture. The store’s manager sent me all the essentials for the apartment on an interest free one-year installment plan. Then, within some days a big box arrived for my little boy that made him ecstatically happy: a tricycle, gift of Mr. Guardian Angel.

 

Despite our life falling pleasantly into places with the help of all those nice people, we were, as Queen Victoria, not amused: the first Toronto winter was quite a trying experience for two Romans. Understandably, we both were very much expecting the arrival of spring. Also because with it there should have arrived the other man to whom the second phone number in my notebook belonged. He was supposed to return from a longer sojourn in Seattle. I could not say he was a real friend, but at least we knew him personally. The previous summer, in the middle of packing for our forthcoming departure for Toronto, a friend from Budapest called to announce the arrival in Rome of a childhood friend of his called Jancsi (pro.: Yunchy, Hungarian diminutive for John) who, having heard about us living in the Eternal City, hoped that I would be his tour guide for the few days he planned to stop before returning to his home. My Budapest friend, sensing that I was not really enthusiastic (excusable with all the work I had ahead before leaving Europe), added that his Jancsi lived in Toronto where he was working in some capacity for Canadian television. Well, this information obviously did it. I said yes, and 48 hours later Jancsi showed up at our door in Rome. My little son took an instant liking to the tall man who brought him a shopping bag full of matchbox cars and told him extremely funny tales, in Hungarian, the language nobody my son ever met spoke except his mom. The tales were funny because of Jancsi’s quite original Hungarian, more his own invention than the mother tongue he had not practised in almost thirty years. With me Jancsi spoke English, and I too enjoyed his tales, linguistically not funny, but  eliciting from me thunderous laughter with his diabolically sarcastic description of the days spent in Budapest.

 

Program CoverIn Toronto, Jancsi and we became regulars at each other’s place, yet not too intimate at all. He did not tell anything about himself, thus I too kept, quite uncharacteristically, to myself. One day, he finally asked me what job I was doing and whether I liked it. I said the job was fine, not at all demanding. He snapped at me: “One should work demanding jobs. By the way” he added, “what is your profession?” I told him I was a broadcaster-journalist, specialized in the arts and entertainment, with theater as my main interest. He wanted to know how long had I, as he said, “torn sheets”? I named the number of months in the ad agency.

 

It was at that time that I learned about the mythical “Canadian experience” which a few people already asked me about although they knew well that I was brand new to Canada. “Well” Jancsi announced, “that makes for your Canadian experience.” And he followed up with a sort of pep talk about how Canadians considered it a good thing that every newcomer, independently of his learnt profession, did his Canadian experience by dishwashing, taxi driving, office cleaning and…tear sheet mailing. At least Jancsi firmly believed in the character forming ability of such initial jobs. “They prepare you for really appreciating working in your field” he said, “and what you do with appreciation makes you do it with more dedication, and a dedicated individual can be not only more useful to the country, but also more fun to be with.”

 

I was flabbergasted. I could not figure out whether he was playing this boy scout act ironically, or seriously. Both could be possible. Jancsi was quite an enigmatic figure. Just to prove me right, after his patriotic speech he didn’t ask what every “normal” friend at this point would: what did I want to do, what were my real interests, or, to follow his own logic, where could I see myself useful to Canada. Instead, Jancsi lightheartedly chatted about theater life in Budapest (what is the percentage between Hungarian and foreign plays?), in Rome (do the well known Italian film stars work on the stage too?) and in Toronto (what plays did I see that I know from Europe? How do I find Toronto’s productions?). When he heard that I hadn’t seen any recognizable title, and for that matter did not see anything on stage, he asked me out for the next night to see a new Canadian play with him. I confessed that nothing would make me happier, but I hadn’t looked for a babysitter yet, mainly because I couldn’t afford one. Jancsi patted my back: “You can consider to have the best babysitter in town, absolutely reliable, loves children madly, and is free of charge!” My face probably showed suspicion because he added: “He is Bryan, my friend of more then ten years. He is a painter and is going to return home tomorrow”. While he had been in Seattle, Bryan spent a few months with his sister in their hometown, Montreal. This is how my Canadian life changed from the times of “Canadian experience” in tear-sheet-collecting to practising my profession of  broadcaster once again.

 

Program Cover -BackObviously, not the same night when we left Bryan at my place with my son while Jancsi and I saw a new Canadian play in a downtown theater. After the show, Jancsi came up with me to fetch  Bryan. Bryan, before leaving, handed me a slip of paper with the word Radio Canada International, and told me that this is how the CBC’s foreign language department is called. “You may want to get in touch with their Hungarian Desk” he suggested. “Do they have any?” I asked excitedly. “We are not the Manpower office” Jancsi snapped at me in his usual way. “Find out. Look them up in the telephone directory” “They may be listed under RCI, in the Montreal directory” said Bryan helpfully, “where the HQ is, but they have an office in Jarvis Street too.” “Don’t humiliate her” Jancsi pulled his friend toward the door, “I’m sure a broadcaster with  nine years experience is able at the fifth try to get the Pope on his Rome private line.” And off they went. I felt uncomfortable, not sure whether I liked this man whom I still did not know anything important about. What did he do for a living? In the theater everybody seemed to know him, but everybody, from the ushers to the secretary to the performers, called him by his first name. In Rome this would clearly be a sign that the person was not important at all… However, he had a big house in one of Toronto’s posh neighborhoods. Was he a wealthy businessman with a big love for theater? But the décor of his elegant house was far too bohemian. Was he a scriptwriter for some artistically cheap but  for that very reason well paying TV serial? Or…? I could not dwell on this mystery because I decided to show him, whoever he was, that my nine year experience at Magyar Radio did prepare me for something.

 

After only two try-outs, I had Janos Mezei, the Head of RCI’s Hungarian Desk on the Montreal line. He had never heard my name, but believed everything I told him about myself, and…The rest is history. For all the years I lived in Toronto, with whatever I did later for a living, I kept sending to Montreal about two, three interviews a week with Hungarian speaking Torontonians.

One morning, much later, wondering in the for me still mysterious corridors of the old Jarvis Street CBC building, I needed help, and asked for direction from a man who rushed by. He was sorry, he could not help, but wanted to know where I was from with that “odd accent” of mine. Irritated, I told him that speaking with an accent, odd or not, I represented  40% of Toronto’s inhabitants. “You must be a Hungarian” he said giggling. Thanks to the inscrutable corridors of the CBC’s Jarvis Street building, my “odd accent”— paired with my not so sweet temperament — and the coincidence that the man whom I bumped into more than a quarter of a century ago was Doug Something (I ask his pardon for having forgotten his last name!), he hired me to do for his program Identities interviews with outstanding personalities of “that 40%”, thus making me the first accented broadcaster on CBC’s national network. My first interviewee was the National Ballet’s Greek born choreographer Constantin Patsalas  and, after him various artists, scientists, professors, industrialists with different accents, the last one being John Arena, the Italian restaurateur, the owner of Winston’s which McLean’s editor-in-chief Peter Newman called “the playpen of the Canadian Establishment.”

 

While I was kept busy by the Hungarian and English interviews, I started in the second year of our stay in Toronto a brand new activity: I had become the Founder and Artistic Director of The Podium, (“Toronto’s first literary cabaret”, as printed on our first year’s subscription brochures). It happened almost by accident. One night, late in 1976, Jancsi took me again to theatre and, after the show, into the Green Room (new expression learnt!), saying that he had some urgent matter to discuss with the actors. I quietly listened to their excited discussion of which I did not understand the topic, but finally understood that Jancsi was John Hirsch, Canada’s Number One theater personality, the first Canadian ever to become a salaried stage director (in Manitoba, where he founded the first professional Canadian theater), and the Head of CBC’s Drama Department which, in lieu of a Canadian National Theatre, was a very important position, if not the most important in the theater world. All  discomfort  I felt in his presence disappeared for ever, and instead, I started to love this man for having kept for more than a year his high rank from me. That night I was sure he would help me do more than freelancing behind the microphone, if I really asked him. I did ask, and he did help, although not in this linear fashion....

 

“I want to translate into English a Hungarian comedy for television” – I announced a few days later with confidence. “It wouldn’t work” – he said. “It would” I snapped back, and proudly listed how many Hungarian plays I translated into Italian, all of them successful: Örkény, Ferenc Karinthy, Görgey… He waived me off. “They would not be in Canada. Neither would Italian plays.” And he gave an improvised yet well-balanced lecture on the differences of North American dramaturgy and that of the European one. All he said sounded correct, yet I felt offended. I promised myself never again to ask for any professional help from John-Jancsi, a promise I kept for almost a year. Then, sometime in 1977, one night, after another culinary feast at his Moor Park home, we chatted again about theater in general, but that time in particular about performances I had seen in Rome.

 

Zalan Photo

1977, Toronto: (from left to right):
Anna Dukasz, star of the literary cabarets Magda Zalan organized in 1977,
John Hirsch with Magda’s four year old son Andy-Andras,
Magda Zalan and Hirsch’s partner, Bryan Trottier.

 

“Tell me about some novelties” – he prodded me. I ended up speaking enthusiastically about the new trend, the one-man shows of this or that famous actor, from Gassman (he knew him well) to Giorgio Albertazzi (never heard his name although more respected in Italy because did exclusively theater) down to many a young and nameless performer who, not satisfied with the unimportant or too few roles he/she could get, agreed with the owner of their habitual trattoria that they would, in their own Sunday best and without the help of scenery, recite some poems, sing a song, read a few pages from a novel or do a monologue from a classical play (whose author died at least sixty years ago, thus no longer obliged to pay royalties to) or from comedies of a playwright friend (who, being a friend, was willing to renounce royalties); in short: give some extra to the diners for no honoraria, but would happily share with their host the income of the somewhat higher prices he might sell the spaghetti cum art on his menu. Jancsi jumped up from his chair. “This is what you should do! You should produce such literary nights!” After a short pause he added: “Of course you should not call them this. We wouldn’t find too many Torontonian burghers willing to pay for such an elitist sounding thing.” We? I raised an eyebrow. What would he, who had refused to help me, do…?

 

Jancsi continued as if he wished to answer my unpronounced question. “I could introduce you to Canada’s most prestigious actors, none of them lacking engagements, and exactly for that willing to give up high honoraria for trying themselves out in something they have never done before!” He added that I might call this new brainchild of mine literary cabaret. “The noun cabaret would be promising enough to pardon your language having used that four-letter (a new expression) adjective of literary. Well, that’s all I can and want to do. The rest is up to you.” I knew he meant it, and that time I accepted his brusque ways without being offended.

 

The same night I started to think about the five telephone numbers I should try to dial in order to find if not the Pope of Rome but any co-producer: a restaurant owner or a businessman willing to come up with some money to rent a modest but adequate space. I had not yet found any when one morning Jancsi called and, without the slightest small talk, informed me he was dropping off at my door a newspaper article about Wintario. “What?!” I shouted at him, but he already cut off the line. Reading the article he brought over in five minutes, I knew in a further fifteen that if I wished to start some multicultural event, one-time or ongoing, I could get my money doubled (my money?! Who had money for multicultural events, whatever they were!

 

One paragraph later that too became clear: “my money” was the estimated income I could generate by selling tickets, subscriptions, enrollments, or you name it, for a project that was in any other language than the country’s two official languages, English and French. These projects should somehow be related to the “national roots” of this or that ethnicity, in the form of some “recreational cultural activities”, which I quickly translated as amateur programs. The same night I called Jancsi telling that I would go within some days to Wintario’s offices and present the details of a 4-part literary cabaret of works by Hungarian classics to be given by local Hungarian performers, some amateurs with some school time background of poetry reading and/or singing – and some professionals doing their Canadian experience. The four nights would be given in a Toronto public library whose mandate, Egri told me, was, besides lending books, to rent their venue for non-profit programs. I informed Jancsi that I already visited the Palmerstone Library which had a space of 80 seats. Calculated that in the library’s neighborhood were many Hungarian groceries, pastry shops, restaurants and also a few residents – so I would declare in my  Wintario application the box office income of a sold out house as our estimated “own money” .

 

Zalan Photo

c.1995, Budapest, Magda Zalan and John Robert Colombo, taken at the
Feszek Club (Artists’ Club), on an evening dedicated to JRC’s poetry

 

I was sure I impressed Jancsi enough to say something positive. “Good luck” he said. “Call us with the date of the first performance.” I did. He came, for all four literary cabaret nights. He was more friendly with the performers than he had ever been to me, gave them some good instruction on their lines, after the last show of the subscription season he invited us all for a Hungarian bean soup party at his house. The guests left charmed. I stayed behind helping to clean up the mess. “I already have prepared my application for more Wintario money for next year’s season, dedicated to other four Hungarian authors’ work” I informed him, proud of how self-sufficient I had become, not relying on anybody for any type of help.  Jancsi’s words came as a cold spring shower. “You don’t change a lot, do you? You prefer doing no demanding work, don’t you?” I was close to crying. Finally he had pity on me; pushed me onto a chair in the rumpus of his kitchen and, beside the humming dishwasher, gave me a long and detailed lesson of the role of multiculturalism, its merits (old people no longer capable of assimilating fully the ways of their adopted homeland could feel belonging by singing - or at least listening to - their folksongs, dancing to their familiar rhythms, talking their mother tongue) and its dangers.

 

Yes, there were some dangers, I heard Jancsi thundering, first of all for the young and dynamic landed immigrants that he considered me to be. Who by preferring “non-demanding jobs” condemn themselves to be second-class citizens… I cannot restore here John Hirsch’s over two-hour lecture. I give only the bottom line (new expression, learned from him that night): I tore up the Wintario application for that second Hungarian language series at the Palmerstone Public Library, the next day got another form from the Ontario Arts Council (OAC) two days before the deadline of its presentation time, filled it in, rushed it in when the various fields’ officers were already piling up the application forms they received. (About this a little story at the end of these reminiscences.)

 

To cut a long story short: I requested financial assistance to produce a 4-night series of literary cabaret with material gathered in four ethnic groups of Toronto to be performed in English, got the grant, and on Tuesday, December 12th, 1978 at 7:30 before the packed Town Hall of the St. Lawrence Centre The Podium – Toronto’s First Literary Cabaret presentedFACE TO FACE– hommage à George Faludy” with actors David Gardner, Marilyn Lightstone and Cedric Smith (and his guitar), directed by John Hirsch. On the cover of the subscription folder one could see Bartok’s profile with the following words - paraphrasing one of the UN’s first secretaries - : “A bundle of belongings is not the only thing an immigrant brings to his new country. Bartok was an immigrant.” (The original spoke about refugees and Einstein.) In the following seven years, before I moved to Washington D.C. for a rather exciting and, yes, demanding job offer, we did several programs with some of Toronto’s best artists from poet John Robert Colombo (who wrote a libretto entitled BACH AMONG THE STARS, for the composer’s 300th birthday), to violinist Moshe Hammer (who, with harpist Erica Goodman, performed the world première of Tibor Polgar’s RHAPSODY OF KALLO, on the 75th birthday of the Hungarian born composer).

 

Now, to finish my already long reminiscences, here is the story I mentioned above, on how I presented our application to the OAC, on the day of the deadline. I tell it because it is emblematic of what it was like to be a landed immigrant in those far away times in Canada. I ran up the stairs in the Ontario Arts Council’s Bloor Street offices. Knocked breathlessly on the door of a certain Steve Stevanovic, officer for the visual arts and literature to whom I was supposed to hand my grant application, but nobody answered. I continued to knock on any door in the corridor, with the same result. A tall, strongly built man with a nice white mane had probably seen my desperate attempts and he stopped me. “Whom are you looking for? May I help?” I told Stevanovic’s name, and that I had to present my application for a literary cabaret series. “Wow” the man said, “literary cabaret! That sounds intriguing. Give me those papers, I will see Steve in a minute, in the meeting where all officers will be present.” I gave him my folder, and as he was about to disappear behind a door, I stopped him: “What is your name, please?” I thought that if my application would be late I should at least know whose fault it was. “My name is Louis Applebaum” he said. “You may call me Lou.” In fact, I addressed my letter of invitation for FACE TO FACE to “Dear Lou”. By that time I knew who he was. The Head of Ontario Arts Council. Later, the Chairman of the Applebaum Commission. A very well known composer: anyone who ever went to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival would have heard that opening fanfare of the late Louis Applebaum. But first of all he was a very fine human being.

 

Budapest, March, 2007

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Portrait MAGDA ZALAN (producer) has a truly "multicultural" origin. She was born of Hungarian parents in Romania and educated in Budapest, Hungary, where she started her career as a journalist which she continued in Rome, Italy. She arrived in Canada in October 1975. She worked for ten years as the Toronto correspondent of CBC Radio Canada International's Hungarian program. In addition, she wrote short stories and articles, both in Hungarian and Italian.

 

During her more than twenty years of theatre and film journalism, she interviewed many leading Hungarian and Italian artists and outstanding personalities including Antonioni, Fellini, Pasolini, Nelo Risi, Visconti and the widow of Bela Bartok. In 1985 Magda moved with her family to Washington to work for the Voice of America's Hungarian Service. She retired in 2000 and moved in 2001 to Budapest where she has been living ever since. There she has mounted a number of literary cabaret evenings with Canadian content. Among these productions one introduced Budapest audiences to John Robert Colombo, the "master gatherer" and mentor of many Hungarian-born Canadian writers and poets; another evening held at the Canadian Embassy of Budapest celebrated Toronto's sesquicentennial with the works of six Hungarian Torontonian authors; for the Canadian Embassy in Washington Magda organized "Tricolor Valentine", an evening of Canadian, Hungarian and Italian love songs with performers flown in from these three countries.

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